The key to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the fairies. Get the fairies right and the rest of the thing tends to fall into place.
In the new production of Shakespeare's much-loved comedy that concluded the three-play, opening weekend of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor season Sunday night, Ted Deasy as Oberon and Terri McMahon as Titania put some real heat into the split between the fairy king and queen, Gina Daniels gives us an ebullient Puck, and the stars aligned.
The fairies wear costume designer Linda Cho's gorgeous, period costumes and little fairy wings that in one scene actually flutter. They slip in and out of the woodsy darkness at will and sleep, perhaps, inside enchanted-looking mushrooms. The design distances the fairies at once from both the Athenian aristocrats and the rustic mechanicals.
Back in Athens, it's 1964, the time when the Vatican II council was redefining the Roman Catholic Church's relationship to the modern world. It's also graduation time at the city's Catholic high school, and Theseus (Richard Howard), who runs the school, and Hippolyta (Judith-Marie Bergan), are wearing their clerics.
Theseus and Hippolyta are to marry in four days, so each is giving up the religious vocation for marital bliss. How can the Queen of the Amazons be a nun? Never mind. The richness of the conceit compels a willing suspension of disbelief.
For example, Theseus' priestly misgivings over the carnality implicit in the budding romance between new graduates Hermia (Tanya Thai McBride) and Lysander (Joe Wegner) take on fine new layers of complexity if he's about to give up the religious calling to take a wife himself.
That's delicious stuff. Director Christopher Liam Moore attended Catholic schools as a boy, and he's tapped into the widespread and unsettling sense of change and confusion that were beginning to rock the Roman Catholic world. It's against that background that Moore explores three stages of love — mature (Theseus and Hippolyta), youthful (the young Athenians) and crashing onto the rocks (Oberon and Titania).
Scenic designer Michael Ganio's woodsy set served splendidly for the third night in a row, festooned this night with crawly greenery and transformed by Alexander V. Nichols' eye-candy projections. Vines of light crawl up the sides of the stage, and video images of Puck bounce around the stage as she speaks, seemingly giving her the power to beam herself up.
The set itself was one of the weekend's stars — it remained for all three plays — as it managed three metamorphoses in three nights. From the ancient British court to the Welsh outback in "Cymbeline," from the English court to Sherwood Forest in "The Heart of Robin Hood," and from the Athenian Court to the fairy-dominated forest in the "Dream."
It's in the green world away from the artificiality of court life where transformations happen, and those changes are nowhere in Shakespeare's world as dramatic as those in the "Dream." It isn't every night, even in the forest, that a common weaver gets changed into a donkey and sleeps with a queen.
It's not made explicit whether Titania's sudden passion for Bottom leads to physical love. If it does, the act is treated like the old seduction time-lapse ploy of movie lovemaking back in the days of Hollywood's Production Code, where the picture faded when things got hot. Bottom's famous speech about his dream ("The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was ... ") is richer if the affair was consummated.
Brent Hinkley's dufus Bottom struck me as over the top as the mechanicals rehearsed "Pyramus and Thisbe," the play they would present in hilariously inept fashion as an entertainment for the Duke's wedding. But he quickly grows on you. His death scene in the play within the play, a rousing send-up of the Shakespearean dramatic deaths, is one of the funniest, and the most drawn-out, I have seen.
The young lovers — Hermia and Helena (Christiana Clark), Lysander and Demetrius (Wayne T. Carr) — are nearly indistinguishable one from the other. But they are a lively bunch as they conceive and abandon crushes on each other and chase around the woods under the spell of Puck's love juice.
Gina Daniels is a superb Puck, not only serving Oberon and creating mischief but working almost as a narrator, helping us sort out the crazy goings-on in the magical forest. Daniels may be small of stature, but she has a big voice, a good thing in a puckish spirit.
The mechanicals' "Pyramus and Thisbe," which is the final act of the "Dream," is technically unnecessary, as the mortals' adventures have all been sorted and their stories have culminated in the traditional weddings. It's a sort of coda, looking back on the action. But it's a high point of any "Dream" production, and here it's very good indeed, built around Hinkley's unforgettable death scene.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.